05/12/2021

030 – Laser printing – 1969

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At each increase of knowledge, as well as on the contrivance of every new tool,
human labour becomes abridged… Charles Babbage

1917 In his paper ‘On the Quantum Theory of Radiation’ Albert Einstein set out the theories for the LASER, light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and MASER, microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation; some saiy a rearrangement of Max Planck’s earlier law of radiation.

Gary K Starkweather studied physics at Michigan State University and focused on lasers and holography for his master’s thesis at the University of Rochester.  He worked at Bausch & Lomb before joining Xerox having been lured by its imaging technology.

 1964 He addressed himself to improving the amount of light applied in high-speed facsimile machines.  Light sources were uncontrolled, they delivered unwanted heat with disorganised light and the light‘s colour temperature was affected by the selected filament metal.

Starkweather concluded that lasers, controllable light, might resolve the issue with the fax machine – and he was correct.  He then looked at how lasers might work with the Xerox copiers and duplicators.

Management at the research centre saw this work as speculative, unreliable and moreover the notion of copiers in the field with potentially blinding light sources was dismissed as absolute folly.  Lasers were expensive as they were still in their infancy and Starkweather was told to stop his work.

He was convinced that the controllable light of a laser could be modulated to carry data and saw the potential for generating an original electronic document rather than merely scanning and producing a copy or a facsimile. 

He worked with an old copier and the lowest cost laser to produce a design for a laser printer in 1969.  His colleagues and managers saw only problems, never opportunities; his manager threatened to remove his resources if he persisted. 

In 1970 he read an internal announcement about the formation of Xerox PARC.  Starkweather joined PARC in 1971 and this move resulted in the most significant revenues the operation would earn from its innovations.

Computer printers usually worked with the ASCII character set, using seven of its eight bits to define a maximum of 128 characters – upper and lower case letters and a series of symbols.  But lasers ran at 300 dots/inch to define characters or graphics with enormous precision.

With others at PARC he developed the Research Character Generator to take computer data and send it in a readable form to the laser and scanning laser output terminal, to write the image to the paper.

Haloid had the perspicacity to take up Carlson’s xerography invention and had successfully invested its future to become Xerox.  But now they appeared not to have the same insight into Starkweather’s developments.  In fact the marketing planners at Xerox forecast a market of around 300 units for the Xerox 9700 laser printer; they sold tens of millions over the next two decades.

The planners predicted that the 9700 was most suitable for 200,000 to 300,000 copies per month.  But eraly units shipped were doing 1m; some soon recorded 2.5m copies per month which meant a 24/7 usage! Starkweather left PARC in 1987 to join Apple where he virtually single-handedly developed colour management technology.  He later joined Microsoft Research working on display technology.

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